science & technology the lede Technology

Trash Tech

A website shakes up Bengaluru’s waste management

1 February 2015

BENGALURU, the hub of India’s IT industry, is choked with garbage. Piles of rubbish dot the streets, and its landfills are overflowing. Roughly 90 percent of the 4,000 tonnes of trash the city generates each day is dumped in landfills, even though about 20 percent of it is recyclable and 70 percent is biodegradable. Most residents ignore a court ruling mandating the segregation of all waste at the source, and even those that don’t often hand their sorted trash to garbage collectors who mix everything together anyway. Armies of waste pickers comb the dumps and landfills for recyclables they can sell on to scrap dealers, but the mixing of different types of trash reduces both the value and the amount of what they can scavenge.

Hasirudala, an NGO that hopes to improve the lives of local waste pickers, turns these informal workers into documented “recycling managers” by connecting them to households, apartment complexes and businesses that it teaches to segregate their trash. The organisation has trained about five thousand recycling managers so far, from among an estimated fifteen thousand to twenty thousand waste pickers in Bengaluru. These trained workers deliver biodegradable waste to the city’s composting centres, sell recyclables to dry-waste collection centres and scrap dealers, and so leave only the remainder for the landfills. By having them recover more, and more valuable, recyclables, this new approach has almost doubled workers’ earnings, to about nine thousand rupees a month in these new roles. To expand this project, and to direct waste pickers and recycling managers to the best points of sale for recyclables, Hasirudala has turned to information technology.

A few days every week, four young men armed with Android tablets set out from the organisation’s offices to survey scrap dealers across Bengaluru. On a mid-October morning, I tagged along with one of the surveyors, Gurudatta G, to a small scrap shop in the city’s north. Its owner, Kumar Ramakrishnappa, eyed us suspiciously as we approached across a floor littered with empty milk packets. Gurudatta introduced himself and explained the purpose of the visit, and Ramakrishnappa consented to speak. Gurudatta fiddled with his tablet, then put it back in his bag. “I can’t connect to the internet,” he explained. “But we always have a backup plan.” He fished out a printed questionnaire. For thirty minutes, he recorded, among other things, the weighing capacity of Ramakrishnappa’s scales, the amounts and types of scrap he deals in, and the exact location of his shop.

Gurudatta surveys, by his own estimate, between ten and fifteen shops a week. All the information he and his fellows collect is logged into I Got Garbage, a website and online database. I Got Garbage, along with its mobile apps, already boasts almost seven thousand registered households, which it points to recycling managers. It also offers a map tagged with the locations of dry-waste collection centres, for the use both of waste workers and residents. Once the survey of the city’s scrap shops is complete—about four hundred have been surveyed so far, with four thousand or so to go—their locations will be added to the map too, along with all the data collected on them. I Got Garbage plans to provide all its recycling managers with smart phones to access this information.

Hasirudala collaborates on this project with the Clean City Recyclers Association, or CCRA, a fledgling group that trains scrap dealers to offer scrupulous prices for recyclables and maintain good business practices, and wants to use I Got Garbage to connect trash workers and waste producers to them. Another partner is the IT company Mindtree, which handles the technical side of the operation.

Prashant Mehra, a Mindtree employee who supervises I Got Garbage, told me over the phone that the completed map “will reduce the distances that waste needs to be carried by waste pickers.” To work efficiently, pickers must know where to sell each of the many kinds of recyclables they receive, and to plan their pickup and drop-off routes accordingly. By pointing out the many materials dealers are buying, Mehra said, the project “will also ensure that low-value recyclables get sold, and not discarded.”

But the project promises to do more than just that. A comprehensive database, Mehra said, will estimate the maximum amount of recyclable material Bengaluru’s existing scrap dealers and dry-waste collection centres can process if everyone in the city starts segregating their trash. Having accurate data, he said, will be key to planning future improvements to Bengaluru’s waste-management system.

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